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The Liturgy of the Eucharist: Eucharistic Prayer III (2)
“For on the night he was betrayed…”
With these simple words the Eucharistic Prayer continues with the Institution account and consecration. The Institution account always begins with some reference to the death of Christ, and Eucharistic Prayer III is no exception. It frames the words of Our Lord that follow, words that are not just a repetition of past words, but words, through the priest or bishop pronouncing them, that make the saving actions of Christ present and Christ himself.
“…he himself took bread, and, giving you thanks, he said the blessing, broke the bread and gave it to his disciples, saying…”
It is not just Our Lord’s words that are recalled, but his actions as well. Just as Our Lord celebrated the first Eucharist before his Passion and Death, now we continue to celebrate it. The gestures of the priest or bishop are similar, but not identical; it is not a dramatic reenactment, but something deeper. He also takes bread, blesses it, and gives thanks, but through the prayers we’ve already said in the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Now he takes the bread in his hands and prepares to say the same words Our Lord said. Our Lord has been acting throughout the liturgy, in the Holy Spirit: blessing, giving thanks, and, through the bishop or priest, taking the bread into his hands, hands that have been consecrated to administer his grace and celebrate his sacraments. The bishop or priest is not just imitating or mimicking the gestures of Christ; Christ is performing those same actions, here and now, through the celebrant.
“Take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is my body, which will be given up for you.”
The Institution account is framed by the first words that refer to Christ’s death, in this case, the betrayal that would lead to his death. The event we recall is not just another banquet or Passover; for the Jews the Passover meal was when the Lord liberated them from slavery—they saw that liberation extending to them in their commemoration of the first Passover. They were free because of what the Lord had done for them that night long ago in Egypt (see Exodus 12:1–13:16, Deuteronomy 16:1–8, and Matthew 26:17–19).
For other religions of the time sacrificial banquets took place after a sacrifice to the gods that provided food for the banquet whose consumption was a gesture of communion with the deities that had been worshipped (see 1 Corinthians 8:1–13; Revelation 2:14, 2:20).
What Our Lord said and did went beyond a Passover meal or sacrificial pagan banquet. In this moment he tells his disciples that the bread he has given to them is connected to the sacrifice to come, the sacrifice of his own body on our behalf: on that night it became his body, not just bread. The Last Supper institutes and celebrates the Eucharist before Our Lord’s sacrifice on the Cross; whenever the Eucharist is celebrated the same sacrifice is being offered sacramentally: Our Lord. He announced it, and every time the liturgy is celebrated this recounting of the Last Supper brings Our Lord sacramentally under the species of bread and wine. With these words the bread transubstantiates into the Body of Our Lord, a Body offered for us of which he invites us to partake so that we may enter into communion with him.
A new Bethlehem
As the celebrant raises the consecrated host we can imagine a new Bethlehem. He pauses for a moment in silence to contemplate not just bread anymore, but Our Lord, sacramentally present. He genuflects: it is no longer a piece of bread; it is Him. Just as the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary and empowered the Incarnation of Our Lord, so the Holy Spirit has overshadowed the altar and empowered the sacramental arrival of Our Lord. His Body, Blood, soul, and divinity are now present. In this moment of the Institution account he is still whole, healthy, and unbroken, just as in his hidden life at Nazareth, just as during his public ministry before his betrayal.
A spontaneous prayer of popular devotion when gazing upon the Eucharist is, “My Lord and my God.” Our Lord has sacramentally arrived; let’s welcome him.
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